May 31, 2010

H.S. freshman goes from football field to fire

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FINLEY, N.D. - Michael Schumacher grew up watching his father, Pete, rush out of the house every time the fire alarm sounded in his hometown of Hope, N.D.

And as soon as Michael was old enough, he started hanging around the Hope City Fire Department. He even answered calls with his dad when he was a young teen.

"I always wanted to try it," he said.

Today, at just 16, he's a member of the Hope volunteer fire department. He's one of the first recruits in the North Dakota Firefighter and EMS Recruitment Campaign, a 10-month-old program designed to attract young people to meet a growing demand for volunteers.

Recruiting volunteers for fire and ambulance services is a constant challenge in North Dakota and other rural states. Many longtime volunteers are in their 50s and 60s and are giving up active duty. Younger people who might fill those boots lead busy lives and often don't think they have time for public service.

"It's a struggle," said Derek Hanson, SAFER project director. "We have places in North Dakota where only three firefighters are available to respond to calls during the day. People work and many of them work out of town, so they're not available to answer calls."

It's a problem for Schumacher, too. Just finishing his freshman year at Hope (N.D.) High, he also participates in high school football, basketball, track, golf and band. During the week, he's going from 7:30 a.m. until 10:30 or 11 p.m.

He hasn't had any formal training yet. He's been learning to use fire equipment from his dad and other fire department volunteers.

The SAFER grant is limited to recruiting. The program has a website which offers the banner headline, "Wanted: Adventure. Needed: Fire and EMS heroes."

The campaign is geared to people 16 to 25, although Hanson, Finley Fire Chief Merle Ferry and other volunteer fire department leaders welcome anybody.

"Recruiting has been a problem," Ferry said. The Finley fire department has about 35 members, but only about 25 who are considered active.

"About one-third of our fire department is over 50, maybe over 55," he said. "Coming up, we're going to be in trouble."

Two new volunteers in their 20s have been recruited in recent months, but he's hoping for more.

"With the population shift to urban areas and the retirement of veteran firefighters and EMS responders, there is a high need for younger people to fill these roles in their communities," Hanson said.

Hanson said he hopes to expand this pilot project throughout the state. He also wants to go beyond recruiting. He is in the process of applying for other federal grants that would extend the program for seven years. That funding would help with professional training, as well as for new equipment.

"This grant gives people an opportunity to promote, market and do an awareness program in the seven counties," Hanson said. "It's working. We're building momentum."

He wants to be able to offer training in small communities throughout the state, rather than force recruits and others to travel long distances for training.

Hanson, a native of Drayton, N.D., works full-time at a Bismarck medical facility. His job directing the firefighter recruitment program is a part-time position, although that may be difficult to figure.

He visits high schools and colleges, talking about firefighting as a career. He also is working to establish a two-year degree in fire science, a degree that can be earned online, so students could stay at home and work their regular jobs.

"We know they may not all want to stay in Finley," Hanson said. "If they want to go the U.S. Forest Service or get a job with a fire department in Fargo or Grand Forks, that's great. We want to let them know there's an exciting career here if they want it."

Schumacher, who will be a sophomore at Hope High in the fall, said he hasn't made any career plans. But it's likely that firefighting will be part of the plan.

"It's fun, and it feels great when you can help people out," he said. "A career in firefighting? Yes, that's a possibility."

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